Kids These Days: [Insert Internet Reference into Pre-21st Century Novel Here]
Part of the fun of reading YA is discovering the classics from a time other than when you were a teen yourself. What girl hasn’t felt a little bit dirty, a little bit relieved, when first discovering a Judy Blume title? And who wasn’t assigned to read a classic novel from the 17th or 18th century in high school and found that it wasn’t totally awful? Who didn’t like a line or two of Shakespeare once they learned the definition of a new word and figured out the pun? Reading books that are no longer contemporary can be rewarding and challenging, and especially in the world of YA, it allows you to fully participate in the conversation about what YA means, how the definitions of “teen” and “young adult” evolve, and how current authors draw their inspiration from the authors of earlier YA.
That’s why reissues of novels are common. All you need is a cover that represents current trends in design, and you have new readers who will pick up your book for the first time. But what happens when the reissue isn’t just a facelift?
I recently read some ebooks by some of those classic, before-I-was-a-teen authors that I still read as a teen (and am clearly reading again now, as an adult), Lois Duncan and Caroline B. Cooney. They are part of a company of authors for all ages, including the Berenstains, Lawrence Durrell, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, being republished in e-book form by Open Road Media, a company that says it does quick turnaround and innovative marketing to bring entire backlists to life in 90 days.
I think this is a great idea. What a great way to introduce these authors to new readers and to allow tried and true fans to complete their collections! But as I was reading, I realized that they weren’t just reissues. They were rewrites.
Take The Twisted Window by Lois Duncan. Originally published in 1987, this thriller about a girl helping a strange boy with a kidnapping is still just as scary as it would have been back then. It’s also a very 1980s book: Brad asks the protagonist, Tracy, out for a Coke, and the speech patterns are very different from the way we talk today. Does that mean it’s Shakespearean English? Not so much. And yet I found myself confused about why everyone was talking and living the way they did in the 80s when I saw the words “Internet” and “cell phone” dropped in. So I did some research, and it turns out, Duncan was given the chance to rewrite them before they were e-published. She says, “I haven’t changed the characters or plots — those have held strong over the years — but I’ve been able to update the language (which was sometimes sort of old-fashioned) and the clothing and the hair styles. Most important, I’ve given my characters computers and cell phones and digital cameras.”
I was still very aware of the old-fashioned-ness of the language, and I think other readers will be, too. Just like you can tell whether written speech is British or American, southern or Bostonian, you can tell when you read something that is different from the way you speak. And keeping plots the same means that they depend on their time and place, because thrillers like these deal with using the resources around you to stay smart and ahead of the murderer, kidnapper, or whatever the villain may be. So what bothered me was not that the language still felt old-fashioned, despite Duncan’s efforts, but that it was made awkward by the new references to 21st century technology, not by the ways it was still the same 1987 it had always been.
You’ve probably read or heard about Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton, the series about a girl, Janie, who learned she was kidnapped as a toddler and raised by parents who were not the kidnappers and, rather, thought they were Janie’s grandparents (their daughter, the kidnapper, said Janie was her daughter and that she needed them to take care of her).
The first book was published in 1990, and over the years, more sequels have come out, the most recent of which (Janie Face to Face) was published in 2012. But if Cooney has aged 22 years over the writing of her novels, the books only span about six. And yet each sequel takes place at the time it was published, meaning that the five novels each have very different contexts of technology and lifestyle. The final book in the series said the term “e-reader” more times than I hear in a year.
In seeing how these reissues try, not necessarily successfully, to look as if this is the first time they are being published, I wonder: what does that say about how authors and publishers view their readers? Do they think today’s teens aren’t capable of understanding a story that has landline phones and going out for sodas instead of texting while sitting with each other at Starbucks? Do they just think that that makes a story less enjoyable, even though people still read Austen and Dickens? From an interview with Cooney in Publishers Weekly, it seems she thinks that the time lapses in her series are a way of respecting the reader: “This is fiction and my readers are brilliant. I think kids will take it in stride just like they take technology changes in stride in their own lives.” I’m not sure I understand what she means. I almost feel like it’s a way of people assuming that “kids these days” won’t read a YA with a compelling plot and characters unless it is peppered with tweets and texts.
What do you think? Does it add something to rewrite books to attempt to stay with the times? Is it insulting to or respectful of contemporary readers? What does it say to older fans who want to share their favorite books with their kids or students?
– Hannah Gómez, currently reading Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko